Bratislava sells itself as the “Little Big City”. Which is a fair description, and a very pleasant city it is too, situated right in the centre of Europe, on the banks of the River Danube. It is just not big enough for three top-flight football teams. Perhaps not even big enough for two, it seems.
Bratislava offers an extreme example of the gulf that ‘modern football’ has opened between the big leagues of Europe and the rest. Slovan, Artmedia, Inter; these clubs risk joining a list of forgotten names of European football.
If your club happens to land a trip to Slovakia’s capital in European qualifying rounds, most likely the name will ring a bell. Bratislava; weren’t Artmedia from there? The team who beat Celtic 5-0, won away in Porto just two years after the Portuguese club won the competition and wasn’t it them who held Rangers to two draws the same year? Correct on all fronts, yes it was them, but where [and who] are they now?
During that Champions League campaign of 2005/06, Artmedia adopted Bratislava into their official name. Furthermore, they played the biggest fixtures in the club’s history at Slovan’s Tehelne Pole ground. However Petržalka, and the identity of this football club lies very much south of the Danube, in one of the city’s biggest suburbs.
Together with fellow Slovak football observer James Baxter, we have written at length about the footballing demise of Petržalka. Ivan Kmotrik, one of Slovakia’s richest men and owner of a publishing company decided to invest in football and initially chose Petržalka, affixing the name of his company to the club in 1993. Kmotrik’s investment combined with the coaching & recruitment expertise of Vladimir Weiss yielded unheard of success for Slovak football in the shape of Artmedia’s incredible run into the European spotlight.
If Petržalka’s rise was spectacular it has been eclipsed by the fall. Despite winning the title again in 2008, Kmotrik left Petržalka taking with him the club’s main sponsors before reappearing on the other side of town at Slovan. Suddenly the core of Petržalka’s squad was also crossing town and the characteristic Stary Most stadium was sold for the development of a Hilton Hotel. Despite being homeless, the club finished 6th in the 08/09 season, but then the rest of the squad left and recruits from the defunct Inter club were unable to survive in the top flight and they were relegated at the end of last season.
This history leaves a distinctly bitter taste for the fans, to such an extent that they find it hard to talk about the former times, the ‘good-old-days’ of football at Stary Most. These exceptionally strong feelings do seem to be evolving into a more pragmatic grudge as former player Filip Šebo, now banging in goals at Slovan, cut a popular figure when he attended a recent Petržalka home match.
“This is Slovakia, after all.”
Now called FC Petržalka 1898 [the 4th name change in a decade] the only consistent factor has been the black and white striped shirts. A new ownership consortium, headed by Jozef Vengloš Sr. led to newfound optimism at the beginning of this season, but the current situation has taken a turn for the worse as news emerges that the players are living off savings and borrowed money after not having been paid for 3 months.
A 1-3 home defeat to runaway Champions AS Trenčín followed by a 1-0 reversal at bottom of the table Puchov leave even the most optimistic of Petržalka fans questioning a feasible route back to the big league.
Even more frequent than the name changes for Petržalka have been the changes of venue for home matches. The last couple of seasons have seen the club on a virtual tour of available stadiums in Bratislava. They currently reside at the Rapid Stadium in the Preivoz area of town and we found a recent visit there to be a very pleasant experience. A new generation of fans is evolving, under the German name Engerau and there is still a heart to this club. A new 3,000 capacity stadium is under construction back in Petržalka, funded by council money and one hopes for the sake of the fans, and of future Bratislava derbies, that they do find their way back. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight!
So, what of Slovan? Well, Kmotrik’s arrival does seem to have coincided with an upturn in fortunes for Slovakia’s most decorated club. After a decade without a major trophy, 2009 saw them crowned domestic Champions again and while 2010 saw them struggle to match MSK Zilina in the league, they did bring home more silverware in the form of the under-rated domestic cup.
A difficult draw against Olympiakos saw Slovan outclassed in their qualifying quest for Champions League football, but they were very unfortunate to not make the Europa League this season as they narrowly lost out to VFB Stuttgart after defeating Crvena Zvezda. The Olympiakos game was the last European match to be played at Tehelne Pole and with matches now being hosted across the road at Pasienky they will struggle to generate an atmosphere that will intimidate Europe’s elite.
In a quirky way and on a sunny day, Pasienky is worth a visit, the floodlights and scoreboard are up there with Eastern Europe’s best, but with around 10% of the ground under cover and an athletics track around the pitch it can be a distinctly desolate place when the conditions are bad.
On the pitch, Slovan struggled before the winter break, but a complete turnaround in fortunes sees them right back in the Championship race having reconciled relationships with the fans. Admittedly a contentious 0-3 default win against Zilina has helped, but the common opinion is that they were genuinely the better side on that day. Even if Slovan defeat leaders FK Senica in the upcoming fixture, the title is still not in their own hands, but with each consecutive victory the hope is building.
With the experience gained from recent seasons and the talent available in the current squad, I wouldn’t be surprised if next season does bring Slovan Bratislava’s first European group stage appearance. Unfortunately for all concerned, those matches will inevitably be played at Pasienky. Tehelne Pole is a crumbling wreck, a photographers dream but demolition and redevelopment seems nothing more than a pipe dream at the moment. Kmotrik’s money will pay the players wages but he is apparently not prepared to solely provide the funds for a new ground. Slovan’s stadium situation is further complicated by the fact the SFZ and the Slovak government are unable to construct a coherent plan for a modern National Football Stadium in Bratislava.
Ironically enough, to end a discussion of the fortunes of Bratislava’s football clubs, the team currently leading the Corgon Liga, FK Senica actually enfranchised Inter Bratislava taking their top flight licence for the 2009/10 season, leapfrogging 3 divisions in the process.
Inter were a popular club who produced some big name players and had their own fair share of success. They were the original occupants of Pasienky but lacking a real fan base, the Senica consortium moved in and the rest is history. The Inter flag still flies over other sports including basketball, handball and athletics and a group have reformed the football club. AŠK Inter have started out again at the 5th tier of Slovak football, in the local Bratislava league.
While the standard of football drops quickly as you move down the pyramid of Slovak football, it is also worth mentioning the club who have involuntarily taken over the mantle as Bratislava’s 3rd, FK Rača Bratislava. Playing in Division II West, Raca also host matches at a classically quaint old ground, known as the Lokomotiv Stadium.
A weekend watching Slovan, Petržalka and Rača including visits to the old grounds Tehelne Pole and Stary Most costs a total of €6 entry fees [€4 for Slovan, €2 for Petržalka and the rest free], which to a fan of football in this region will provide insight second to none. Highly recommended!
For information on visiting any of the above grounds, fixtures & kick off times, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the Britski Belasi blog or by email on britskibelasi[at]gmail.com